Why We Need the Humanities in Today’s Career-Focused World

The humanities’ true value lies not in practical skills, but in its insights into the human situation.

August 30, 2021

The critic and classicist Daniel Mendelsohn offers a simple yet compelling rationale for studying the humanities: you can study accounting, he writes, but when your father dies, your accounting degree won't help you process that experience.

Prior to the Renaissance, when the humanities came to be associated with the study of particular fields -- notably art, history, law, literature, philosophy and theology -- and particular methods -- analytic, critical and speculative rather than empirical -- the humanities was thought of as a process.

For Cicero, humanitas provided the kind of education that was necessary to produce a cultivated human being, one who possessed certain virtues, including empathy, compassion and a capacity for friendship, and an enlightened, mature, skeptical and critical mind-set.

The time has come, I am convinced, to reassert this older view of the purpose of the humanities, and to embrace the notion that the goals of a humanities education, especially at the lower division, should be to foster critical reflection, cultivate the moral and aesthetic sensibilities, nurture a rich inner life, teach the arts of living.

Humanities students should grapple with life’s meaning and purpose, ponder life’s deepest questions and wrestle with the most profound existential issues involving love, friendship, aging, gender, loss, justice and evil. Of love, life, memory and mortality.

Let me suggest six ways that we might do this. This list is certainly not meant to be comprehensive, and, indeed, some of these approaches are already offered by individual faculty members. But these perspectives haven’t been embraced on the broader scale that I am convinced is necessary.

1. Being Human

What does it mean to be human? Some generalizations, however gross or overly simplistic, make sense. These include an ability to communicate through words, sounds, symbols and gestures, movements, and facial expressions; a capacity to ponder the past, present and future; a capability for making decisions or taking actions and bearing their consequences.

But the true meaning of being human lies in our ability to reflect upon human nature or upon the relative role of reason, the emotions and the unconscious on human behavior. And the most powerful and profound insights into those issues are found not in the social and behavioral, brain, or natural sciences, but in the humanities.

2. The Human Condition

Anger, envy, fear, gluttony, greed, grief, loss, love, lust, mortality, pain, pride, regret, sloth, wrath -- all are aspects of the human condition that are also best studied through the humanities.

It’s in works of literature, art, philosophy, theology and history that we can best learn about human nature: whether people are inherently good or evil, altruistic or selfish and self-seeking or sociable or individualistic. At least thus far, the greatest insights into questions of free will and determinism and the impact of environment and upbringing are found, not in the social or natural sciences, but through the kinds of documents that humanists examine and produce: novels, dramas, artworks, biographies and histories.

3. The Life Course

The human life course, too, needs to be studied through a humanities lens. Certainly, social scientists have a great deal to say about the series of stages -- infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, late childhood and so forth -- that constitute the life course, and the transitions -- growing up and growing old -- that mark our progression through life.

But it’s the humanities that reveal the profound transformations that have taken place in the definition and actual experience of the life course and the meanings that human beings have attached to the process of maturation, coming of age, achieving adulthood and aging.

It’s a cliché that much of the greatest literature and works of art explore these life changes and pivot points. For students, who are themselves moving across life stages and are coming of age, few subjects are more personally relevant than exploring life’s passages and the rites and the developmental challenges -- forging an independent adult identity, finding intimacy, establishing a career, becoming a parent, grappling with grief -- that accompany these shifts.

Too often, I fear, the study of the life course is left to psychologists or sociologists, but it’s through the humanities that we can examine the human meaning of being a child, a girl or a boy, an adolescent or youth, or an adult. It’s through literature, art and other humanistic sources that we can help our students navigate their own passage through the life course.

4. Justice

At a historical moment when controversies over social justice stand at the very center of public debate, Michael Sandel’s megacourse on justice should inspire many more imitations and adaptations. Many students would benefit greatly from a course that explores the aims of justice and the moral principles that should inform our actions and choices as individuals or members of society.

The issues that rack society today -- abortion, affirmative action, assisted suicide, capital punishment, free speech, immigration, inequalities of income and wealth, the sale of bodily organs, reparations for slavery, surrogate pregnancy, and a voluntary military, among others -- all hinge on our conception of justice.

So let our students enter the ongoing conversation about justice and moral reasoning alongside Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Nietzsche, Rawls and their contemporary counterparts, and ask themselves what constitutes criminal, distributional, environmental, gender, generational or racial justice and how can these can be achieved.

5. Evil

Contemporary American culture is obsessed with evil. Political torture, terrorism, suicide bombings and school shootings, and other forms of violence dominate our news coverage, while closer to home, we have grown increasingly aware of the realities of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. Our popular culture is obsessed with images of evil and violence. Psychopaths, sociopaths and serial killers pervade our movies and many of our most popular books. Some of the young have self-consciously adopted the Goth style, with its allusions to the forces of darkness.

For more than two millennia, theologians, philosophers and their modern-day counterparts have pondered the problem of evil. Religious thinkers have asked how an all-powerful and benevolent God can tolerate evil and suffering and whether evil serves some rational purpose or whether it is utterly inexplicable. Philosophers, too, have explored the origins and nature of evil, and have asked whether people are responsible for evil acts committed as the result of unconscious drives and whether rational explanations of evil reduce human responsibility.

In the 20th century, secular explanations of evil largely replaced religious ones. Psychologists and sociologists have shown how mental disease, past abuse or dysfunctional upbringing, and certain social, demographic, economic and political circumstances and dislocations have given rise to acts of individual and collective evil.

A humanities course on evil might examine how various thinkers, writers and artists have conceived, explained and interpreted evil, and how we might best understand the sources of human violence and cruelty, the historical factors that make radical evil possible, the similarities and differences between such examples of mass murder, ethnic cleansing, population displacement and genocide as the Atlantic slave trade, the destruction of Native Americans, the Armenian genocide, Stalin’s great famine, the Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Among the questions we might ask:

  • Is evil inexplicable, impossible to understand? Or is evil simple to explain: Is it rooted in jealousy, fear, rage, envy, greed, hatred, the wish to dominate or the sheer joy of killing?
  • Is evil perpetrated by deviants or moral monsters?
  • Are men more prone to evil than women? If so, why?
  • Should we forgive evildoers? Can we?

6. The Meaning of Life

The death of my colleague the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg prompted much reflection on an argument he advanced in his popular study of the universe’s origins, The First Three Minutes: “The more that the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” As he later elaborated, “There are laws -- we are discovering those laws -- but they are impersonal, they are cold.”

Yet like Darwin, who concluded On the Origins of Species not with pessimism or cynicism but by rejoicing in the “grandeur of this view of life,” so, too, did Weinberg. Even though he “thought of human existence as accidental and tragic fundamentally,” he nonetheless found meaning and joy in chamber music and poetry and the “massed wheeling circles of the stars.”

What constitutes the good life has changed profoundly over time, with honor and reputation, military prowess, or religious observance gradually giving way to work, wealth and possessions, and family and friendship. Some, like Weinberg, found life’s meaning in the “religion” of art or science. Others embraced hedonism, thrill seeking and risk taking.

Like the Oxford historian Keith Thomas, whose The Ends of Life looks at how individuals in early modern England conceived of the good life, why not fashion a course that examines how to live, what goals in life we should pursue, and what gives meaning to our lives?

Defenses of the humanities tend to emphasize the soft skills that humanities degrees offer -- including the ability to communicate and think critically -- and the competencies -- such as emotional competence or cross-cultural literacy -- these majors provide.

I fear, however, that in emphasizing the humanities’ practical and pragmatic value, we miss out on the humanities’ true value. It:

  • Involves cultivating a certain sort of person with specific kinds of virtues.
  • Entails grappling with complex moral issues.
  • Makes each individual a participant in certain timeless human conversations.

If the humanities are to achieve those goals, we need more “big question” classes that don’t readily conform to disciplinary norms. Let’s not allow narrow specialization to stop us from providing our students with the rich exposure to the intellectual life that college ought to offer and the humanities, properly construed, can furnish.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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